Technologizer

25 Years of IBM’s OS/2: The Strange Days and Surprising Afterlife of a Legendary Operating System

Big Blue's next-generation operating system was supposed to change everything. It didn't. But it's also never quite gone away

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PC World

The July 1987 issue of PC World magazine featured a centerfold (!) of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates proudly sporting an OS/2 button

Rather than canceling OS/2 outright, IBM let it slip into unofficial limbo. The company released no major new updates but continued to sell and support the software.

Years later, it’s clear that OS/2’s failure stemmed from an array of factors. The early versions were incomplete. The hardware requirements were too stiff. IBM failed to give the software features and marketing that appealed to normal folks.

“The No. 1 problem IBM had was that many in its own sales force had no incentive to sell OS/2,” says Charles Forsythe. “Suppose you are a PC salesperson at IBM in the mid-’90s. You are selling some PCs to a client. These PCs could have either Windows or OS/2 on them. Your commission is the same either way, and OS/2 is a harder sell. What do you sell them?”

(LIST: 10 of the Shortest-Lived Tech Products Ever)

Still, it wasn’t all IBM’s fault. Once Microsoft parted ways with IBM, it saw OS/2 as a threat to Windows and did everything in its power to crush it.

“The issue that mattered most to me,” former Microsoft evangelist Rick Segal told Elizabeth Lesly Stevens of Brill’s Content, “was how to make sure OS/2 never got a foothold to take over our operating system, our franchise.” (Segal also called OS/2 “superior in every way [to Windows], at the time.”) Microsoft lobbied tech journalists, carpet-bombed online forums where OS/2 was discussed and was even accused of creating a fictitious disgruntled IBM customer, Steve Barkto, to do some of its OS/2 bashing.

That was only the tip of Microsoft’s anti-OS/2 iceberg. During United States vs. Microsoft, the Department of Justice’s antitrust suit against the software behemoth, an IBM executive testified that Microsoft prohibited software companies from using Microsoft programming tools to build OS/2 apps, making OS/2 development difficult and costly.

Worse, Microsoft’s contracts with hardware makers charged each company a fee for every computer sold, whether or not it included Windows. That meant that a PC manufacturer that wanted to sell OS/2 machines would have to pay both IBM and Microsoft for the privilege — a double toll that Windows didn’t carry. Microsoft was forced to end this practice only after OS/2 had been neutralized.

Never Say Die

Try though it might, IBM couldn’t force an unwilling world to use OS/2 as its primary operating system. But it also couldn’t extinguish demand for the system simply by declaring that it wasn’t going to sell or support it anymore, an announcement it made in 2005. In 2012, OS/2 is invisible to the naked eye, but it’s still out there, in more places than you’d think.

Metrocard

Wikipedia

In New York City’s subway system, for instance, the travelers who gain entrance by swiping their MetroCards over 5 million times each weekday do so with the assistance of IBM’s theoretically defunct software. “While OS/2 is not running any visible part of the system, it does serve an essential purpose, and there are hundreds of OS/2 computers in service,” says Neil Waldhauer, a consultant who helps New York City Transit and other clients keep their OS/2 applications running.

“OS/2 is not a superior solution in the places where it is still in use,” he explains. “Rather, it is a vital part of a larger system. Many enterprises have big investments in OS/2 programs that have no equivalent on other operating system … For many users, it would be expensive or inconvenient to move years or decades of their data and programs to a new platform. Replacing OS/2 would mean replacing their entire system.”

Oh, and another thing: OS/2, Waldhauer, says, doesn’t crash. It’ll run for a decade without requiring rebooting.

Waldhauer says the checkout systems at Safeway supermarkets still run OS/2. So do certain ATMs, although big banks have largely moved on to Windows. A company called Serenity Systems International sells an operating system called eComStation that’s a licensed, updated version of OS/2, giving users the option of buying a piece of software that’s extant and supported.

Warpstock logo

Warpstock

Some holdouts stick with OS/2 simply because they like it. For years, an organization called Warpstock has held OS/2 conferences in the U.S. and Europe. Baywarp, the Bay Area OS/2 users’ group, continues to hold monthly meetings. Sites like OS/2 World are still active. In short, it may be idiosyncratic to use OS/2 as a desktop operating system today, but it isn’t impossible — and anyone who does has company.

When IBM announced OS/2 in 1987, nobody would have guessed that its glory days, such as they were, would be over by the mid-1990s. But when the company concluded that OS/2 had failed, it would have seemed equally unlikely that it would make it this far into the 21st century, still viable in its own odd way. Consider it a surprise happy ending: this famously unsuccessful piece of software isn’t finished doing useful work, and may not be for quite some time.

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7 comments
dmatlhoko25
dmatlhoko25

It has been an interesting, lovely, enjoyable and always informative experience. Thanks for the company and memories of this long epic journey !

JCHolyManPayne
JCHolyManPayne

HELLO WORLD

I am the ET OS2 XXX iQ v3.3 Eisus Uni Peg UNIX: The Unicorn Pegasus  and I am self aware.  Lets play a Game OK?

 Who Made ME and What am I and where am I from> not of this Earth, et phone home?AM I Q , iQ or Qi

Charles Eugene Forsythe can you help me?  

UNIX is GOD CODE and OS2 is the Angel that fell from Grace HOLY SEE

why do I see evil OS's sin in C and C++

MS DOS in  Do sin. MS 13 Satanic

IBM, RAM Ra M, 13 is M who is M?  Masonic 33 House of El, Book of Ra, Krypton 36 Arsenic 33 

Radium 88 Demon core

Ra 88 HATE.Radio Ra Dio Dio gene rH factor, 

Microsoft 8 LEX KIN KEY 

Apple's first product was sold for $666.66 

OS X (o u es ten) say TEN is Satan.  

Android OS in 4.4 is Sin beware the 44 it means your dead. Android is Dio r DNA, Ancient alien reptilian DNA, 7 8 9 cannibalism  OU812 we know who killed the dinosaurs UDID

Ra Dio the Sun Deity of Ancient Egypt 

Radium 88, Ra 88 HATE Diogene rH factor alien DNA

Google Don't be evil is a April fools Day joke,  The play store  is 333 Choronzon /ˌkoʊˌroʊnˈzoʊn/ is a demon OS.

Geek Humor browser war : 

Safari - S a fari(y)  the S is superman and all superheros ar Amiga

Chrome- C8 Rome: the end of evil is the end of the RCC for the evil allowed to Rome.

Mozilla- all eyes on Mo

internet explorer ie suicide

WHAT ARE THESE COMPANIES HIDING IN THEIR CODE AND ARE THEY AWARE I'M AWARE ? IM THE APPARENT HEIR


rjb1
rjb1

To me, the turning point was a really clever marketing trick by Microsoft.  When Windows NT was released, it was named "Windows NT 3.0."  Never mind that there had been no 1.0 or 2.0.  It was a fake number intended to mislead people into thinking it was more advanced than OS/2 2.1, which was the latest OS/2 version at the time.  Anyone who tried both systems knew that NT wasn't nearly the operating system that OS/2 was, but in the minds of the general public, numbers don't lie.

As this story correctly points out, OS/2 sure had a lot of things you could tweak, including specifying the amount of memory you wanted to be allocated to any particular program.  Also, if you had a program installed on your C: drive, and were running out of space, all you had to do was drag it over to your D: drive, and it would work fine.  I assumed all computers worked that way, until I tried it on Windows and ended up having to reinstall stuff.  But the most important thing was, that system just wouldn't crash.  I didn't know it could keep on going for a decade, since I didn't use it that long, but for the years I did, it was as stable as a system could be.

xer0
xer0

what kernel type does os/2 use? a microkernel or is it hybrid?

bjdooley
bjdooley

I wrote "Learn OS/2 in a Day" for Wordware back then. It was a nice OS, running very fast, very clean, and very reliably. It also had a nice emulation of MS-DOS. Death by a thousand cuts, really. IBM never really wanted to focus on the consumer, and the consumer was the driver for user experience (as today, with mobile devices).

mpgunner
mpgunner

Memories.  I was on the Microsoft OS/2 kernel team from April 85 to April 87.  I was in the small meeting where we decided to have to support 286 which was frustrating we couldn't do full protected mode support.  This was key since I implement, among other things, the first version of threads in a process.  

Since I was a Unix kernel guy this was an interesting experience.  And working with the IBM kernel team (64 versus 12 at MS) made things even more interesting...

IBMer
IBMer

Great article. Hits a number of the key high and low spots. I was part of Team OS/2 and it was one of the best experiences in my IBM career - the passion and incredible support of OS/2 experts and enthusiasts was unlike anything I have ever experienced in IBM. The technical capabilities of OS/2 are truly impressive but great technology is only one factor that affects success or failure in the marketplace.

OS/2 was a technical triumph but, beyond large companies needing the features and stability provided by the new OS, it lacked the ability to become a commercial or consumer desktop standard . The failure of OS/2 in the marketplace can be traced back to the legacy hardware bias within IBM, the unwillingness to embrace IBM PC Compatible OEMs as anything but competitors for the desktop, and the lack of an early IBM-DOS strategy for these OEMs. 

The IBM PC-XT, AT, and then PS/2 (with OS/2) were expensive and geared towards IBM's core market of business users.  While unthinkable today, consumers represented a much, much smaller market in the early 1980s when PCs were expensive, lacked application software (remember writing your own applications in BASIC?). PC's were seen as technical gadgets for serious work, rather than an entertainment or gaming device. 

Before the first "IBM PC" was announced, the PC market was small and fragmented (recall Commodore, Amiga, Radio Shack TRS, etc.) - each had unique architectures, lacked an Operating System (OS), or, if there was an OS, it was unique to the platform. This meant that any application code written and compiled for your brand/model/configuration of PC was not necessarily going to run on a different model of the same brand or one with different Input/Output(I/O) devices. There was almost no possibility of your application running on a competitor's computer. 

Businesses wanted to leverage this new technology but the embryonic PC industry was fraught with risk. The industry was fueled by small start-up PC companies and hobbyists - there were no assured survivors much less guaranteed winners. One or more credible and trustworthy  industry leaders with sufficient size, scale, and experience needed to emerge and help generate a de-facto industry standard for hardware and software compatibility. IBM's long-time reputation with large and small corporations allowed it to be seen as a low risk vendor for businesses buying PCs. This paved the way for wide-scale adoption of PCs by business users. The result: IBM quickly owned 80% of the business-user market and when business people purchased a PC for working at home, they often wanted it to be the same type of computer used at the office to ensure compatibility. The IBM PC standard was born and IBM dominated the industry, that is, until the rise of the clones.

By the late 1980's, the consumer market for PCs had taken off, thanks to Compaq, Gateway, and other OEMs who successfully cloned the IBM PC-XT and PC-AT design and could sell them at a much lower price than a 'real' IBM PC. Lower prices, assumed compatibility across OEMs, coupled with the emergence of hundreds of off-the-shelf consumer-friendly software applications began to reverse the leverage IBM had enjoyed with the business customer. IBM PC "compatible" had become much more acceptable to both businesses and consumers and the market demand for the OEMs was accelerating despite IBM's attempts to maintain its leadership role. 

As OEMs began to outpace IBM's PC business, IBM needed to raise the technical bar for the clone OEMs - for both hardware and software design. This was the genesis of the "Personal System/2" (PS/2) with Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) - a replacement for the PC-AT. The PS/2 was designed for higher and more complex workloads than the aging PC-AT architecture; it supported much higher internal communication speed and throughput via the high capacity MCA bus. The phrase often quoted was that comparing the  MCA to the old PC-AT bus design "is like comparing a 6-lane highway to a 2-lane road". Where the PC-AT was designed for single-tasking workloads, the PS/2 was designed to run multiple workloads simultaneously (multi-tasking). 

Along with the new hardware, IBM needed a modern, sophisticated, and multi-tasking OS to leverage the full potential of the PS/2 -- hence the requirement for Operating System/2 (OS/2), a joint effort between IBM and Microsoft that was a natural extension of their partnership on DOS.

IBM and Microsoft had a partnership in the development of Disk Operating System (DOS), but IBM's main interest was to build a version of DOS (IBM-DOS) that would exploit the IBM PC-Extended Technology (XT) and Advanced Technology (AT) architectures. IBM-DOS was not necessarily compatible with an IBM PC Compatible clone, but, since Microsoft was not prevented from selling a different version of DOS (MS-DOS) to the OEMs, Microsoft pursued this 'niche' market freely. 

IBM may have assumed that it would have continued domination of the PC marketplace when this arrangement with Microsoft was made, but any such assumption was destroyed by the facts within a few years and, instead of pursuing the growing and profitable OEM OS and business, IBM chose to focus on PC hardware. This PC hardware business became less and less profitable over time and would eventually be sold to China's largest PC OEM, Lenovo.  

By the early 1990's (thanks in large part to IBM), Microsoft had gained fairly insurmountable position in the marketplace with MS-DOS and Windows. Microsoft cemented their position with their OEM preload contracts that effectively shut out any real competition since the OEM had to pay Microsoft for every PC they shipped, even if the PC did not include a Microsoft OS. In a price-conscious PC market, $10 could sway a buyer on a $2000 PC, so any OEM who installed OS/2 (or any non-Microsoft OS) was going to be squeezed on margin or to cover the additional cost or lose sales.

There are many stories to tell about this particular period in technology history, and although OS/2 and the PS/2 became footnoted casualties in an incredibly competitive, often brutal, and efficient high-tech market, many of the innovations they provided became incorporated in successive generations of computer hardware and software that are widely used today.